By Emma Glassman-Hughes
Boston University News Service
BOSTON — Hand-scrawled demands to “#SanctionEthiopia” and “#FreeTigray” adorned a handful of posters that waved above the heads of cowbell-wielding marathon spectators the morning of Marathon Monday.
In a tide of joyous cheerleaders, less than a dozen stoic demonstrators stood shoulder-to-shoulder near the Boylston Street finish line, calling for international intervention to end the Ethiopian and Eritrean state-sanctioned violence that’s gripped the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia since last November.
Helen Gebrezgiy, 29, a lifelong Boston resident with family in Tigray, clutched a sign that read, “Ethiopia is running here today, to continue to STARVE innocent people in the dark tomorrow!!!!”
Selam Geberargay, 31, moved to Boston in 2013 from Tigray. She carried a sign that read, “MILLIONS could DIE unless aid is Delivered NOW.” She held a massive American flag and draped a red and gold Tigrayan flag over her shoulders.
For both women, the Boston Marathon is an annual cause for celebration. Gebrezgiy grew up rooting for Ethiopian runners. Geberargay’s first marathon was in 2013. She’s gone back every year since, “cheering, supporting, and showing love to those runners.”
But this year was different.
“Unfortunately this year I’m not here to celebrate or cheer or show that kind of joy because I haven’t speak to my family for 11 months,” Geberargay said. “I’m here to talk to Boston residents to stand with us, stand with Tigray, break your silence. It’s not OK what’s happening in Ethiopia. Tigray is not OK.”
On Nov. 4, 2020, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed ordered an attack against regional Tigrayan forces. When he took office in 2019, Abiy was viewed as a harbinger of progress. He was even awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 for negotiating a peace treaty with neighboring Eritrea after decades of animosity felt most acutely by Tigrayans, who share a border with Eritrea and make up roughly 7% of the Ethiopian population.
Abiy’s reign began with the dissolution of Ethiopia’s controversial coalition government, established in 1991 in part by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which would become the coalition’s leading party. Under the coalition government, “concerns were routinely raised about human rights and the level of democracy,” according to a BBC report from June about the origins of the current conflict. Prime Minister Abiy quickly responded to public pressure to reshuffle the system, creating what’s known as the “Prosperity Party,” and ousting long-standing leaders from the TPLF.
Tensions between parties continued to rise until Abiy eventually launched the offensive in November, claiming that the federal government was “forced into a military confrontation.”
In the nearly one year since, Abiy, with the help of Eritrean troops, has been accused of genocide in the Tigray region. International watchdog groups such as Omna Tigray allege that Abiy has also weaponized “starvation and […] sexual and gender-based violence against women and girls.” Omna Tigray estimates that over 70,000 civilians have been killed, over 900,000 Tigrayans are living in famine conditions, and over 2 million have been displaced.
Ethiopia’s federal government has also limited and at times outright blocked access to aid, electricity, and telecommunications, leaving members of the Tigrayan diaspora uncertain of the status of their loved ones in Ethiopia.
Gebrezgiy hasn’t been able to contact her grandmother in months to see if she has basic necessities like food and medication. Geberargay’s entire family, including her mother and father, are currently unreachable.
“They could be one of those people you see in the picture, starving to death,” Geberargay said, pointing to a banner that her fellow demonstrators carried with images of skeletal Tigrayan infants.
“My mom has a blood pressure problem—if she can’t go to the hospital and get the medical help she needs, she could die. It’s been a stressful and traumatizing 11 months.”
Geberargay said the demonstrators, a tight-knit group of family and friends, have protested many times around downtown Boston, but their pleas seem to fall “on a deaf ear.”
So they came to the marathon to drive awareness, especially given the popularity of Ethiopian runners, who finished in second, third, and fourth places in the men’s race. She added that the large crowds would provide greater visibility to aid in the group’s ultimate goal of galvanizing action from the UN.
Aster, a demonstrator who declined to give her last name, also emphasized the need for UN intervention—something that’s more likely to come with the right amount of public pressure.
“We have an international community for a reason. But the international community has been reporting on it for a year now and no action has been taken,” she said. “We just hope people will see this [demonstration] and educate themselves and make up their own informed opinions.”
For the Tigrayan demonstrators, the time for decisive action is now.
“Back in the days, [President] Clinton was saying, ‘I was late to act on the Rwanda genocide,’ and now we’re seeing it happening [again],” Geberargay said, her voice nearly drowned out by a swell of whoops and noisemakers buoying runners through the final hundred yards of their 26-mile race.
“But they can’t say we were late or we did not know, because we have been out there telling all the information, telling what exactly the Ethiopian government have been doing to the people as a genocide,” she said, straining to be heard over the cheering. “So please don’t tell us that you were late to act. Act right now.”